Reading, writing, and running: Q&A with Arden York

birds-eye view of a tropical island - waves crashing on a sandy beach with a stand of palm trees and grasses in the right-hand corner

Katherine Arden York is a proud philosophy student in her senior year at the University of Baltimore. When she is not studying or working, she can be found running (slowly) along Baltimore’s streets, enjoying a whiskey at her favorite bar, or attempting to bake a homemade pie. Arden aspires to become an astronaut but is willing to settle for student loan forgiveness and a new bike.

Arden read an excerpt from her story “The Expression of the Emotions in Girl and Animals” at our issue launch in January.

She was kind enough to answer some questions about her story and her writing life more broadly.

Q: Your story “The Expression of the Emotions in Girl and Animals” was such a fun story to read. Without giving away any of the plot (even though I really want to know what happened to the world!), can you share a little bit about the inspiration for this story?

AY: I am addicted to reading the news. In particular, I’m addicted to reading about climate change and environmentalism. Unfortunately, my basic operating level is already anxiety, anxiety, anxiety. I wanted to find healthy ways to channel my angst, so I decided to write about it.

What was your writing process like for this piece? 

I wrote the first draft of this story for a creative writing class. Deadlines are so helpful; without them, my stories languish half-written on my computer or, worse, in my brain. Because of the deadline, I was methodical with this piece. I wrote an outline and worked on the story everywhere: at the office before work, the library, Red Emma’s, and so on. Unfortunately I’m not usually this successful when it comes to finishing things. I have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to discipline.

In terms of sculpting the actual story, I knew that I wanted my setting to either be in or be inspired by the Galapagos Islands, an area of the world I have never visited but would give almost anything to see. I’m also a fan of surrealism and, I admit, talking animals. I don’t think I have ever fully gotten over my first true love, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

I don’t think there is anything I love to do more than read, and nothing inspires me more than brilliant writing.

At the launch reading you said that you wrote this story “in a fit of existential dread that has only grown” but that you are also “vulnerable to optimism.” How do those two forces interact, in this story but also in your writing more generally?

There’s a moment in the story when the main character contemplates her survivor’s guilt, while also acknowledging that survival was everything her family had been working toward. The main character’s gumption on the island, her methodical efforts to feed and shelter herself and also bond with the other inhabitants, is her embrace of optimism. She’s alone, and her companions seem to be alone, too, and things beyond their island are faring very poorly. But every morning when they wake up, they have each other.

There’s a quote from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that I turn to a lot when I’m feeling pessimistic about humanity and our relationship to the Earth: “We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet.” Beetle-saviors still exist everywhere, and that keeps me going. It also fuels my writing. I love tackling dark themes with a little light.

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Who are some of the writers who inspire you?

Oh my god, there are so many. Annie Dillard, Jesmyn Ward, Ray Bradbury, Lauren Groff, Zadie Smith, Shirley Jackson, Carmen Maria Machado, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, Flannery O’Connor, Nadine Gordimer, Cheryl Strayed, Mary Oliver, Alice Munro, Douglas Rushkoff, Michelle Tea, Jeff VanderMeer, Andrea Gibson… I don’t think there is anything I love to do more than read, and nothing inspires me more than brilliant writing.

As a fellow (slow) runner, I have to ask—what relationship, if any, do you see between running and writing? 

I dream about running the way people dream about flying. In these dreams I put on a pair of trainers and step out of my apartment and go for a run around Baltimore, feeling content and happy. And that’s it. That’s all that happens. Before I began running, I used to wake up feeling frustrated that during my waking hours I couldn’t get myself to actually do it. I had this massive fear that I, a fat person, would literally be laughed off of the sidewalk by anyone who saw me attempt to run. But then I went through a reading binge of Haruki Murakami novels, finishing with his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Several things shifted in my brain while reading it, and I bought a new pair of running shoes and downloaded a running app on my phone.

At the same time, I started to take my writing more seriously. My fears about writing are very similar to my fears about running. So I think it’s appropriate that the thing that gave me the courage to run and write, and run and write some more, was reading.

What is the best piece of writing advice you have received or given?

It’s cliché, but I’ve been reminded many times by many people that you can’t call yourself a writer if you don’t write. I have always wanted to be a writer. In order to do that, I have to write. (This is where discipline is helpful—I’m working on it, really!)

What’s next for your writing life? Is there anywhere else that we can find your work?

“The Expression of the Emotions in Girl and Animals” is my first and only published short story. When I received the acceptance email from Little Patuxent Review, I tried to erase “publish a story” from my bucket list. But it turns out I wrote that particular goal in permanent ink, and so I’m working up the nerve to submit one or two more things to different journals. Wish me luck.

I wish Arden lots and lots of luck.

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